The Western Wheat Quality Lab with Craig Morris

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For questions or comments, contact Dr. Craig Morris via email at craig.morris@ars.usda.gov or by phone at 509-335-4062.


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Episode Transcription:

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: Hello, and welcome to the WSU Wheat Beat Podcast. I’m your host, Drew Lyon, and I want to thank you for joining me as we explore the world of small grains production and research at Washington State University. We have weekly discussions with researchers from WSU and the USDA-ARS to provide you with insights into the latest research on wheat and barley production. If you enjoy the WSU Wheat Beat Podcast, do us a favor and subscribe on iTunes or your favorite podcasting app. And leave us a review while you’re there so others can find the show too.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: My guest today is Craig Morris. Craig is the Director of the USDA-ARS Western Wheat Quality Lab in Pullman. Hello, Craig.

Craig Morris: Hey, Drew.

Drew Lyon: Craig, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Craig Morris: Sure. I grew up on a corn, soybean, livestock farm in Iowa, went off to Iowa State University and got a undergraduate degree in Agronomy and seed science. I had never seen a wheat plant in my life, up until then going to Kansas State University for a Master’s and Ph.D.

Drew Lyon: Okay. The big wheat state, Kansas state. All right. Tell us how you ended up in Pullman after all this.

Craig Morris: Yeah. Well, I originally came to Pullman to do a postdoc with Dr. Kay Simmons, and she was working on pre-harvest sprouting. So kind of a timely topic from the 2016 low-falling numbers. So yeah, it was actually seed dormancy, pre-harvest sprouting that first brought me to Pullman.

Drew Lyon: Okay. How long ago was that?

Craig Morris: I hate to admit, it was 1987.

Drew Lyon: 1987?

Craig Morris: [ laughter ]I’ve been here a while.

Drew Lyon: That’s going back. And when did you become the director of the Western Wheat Quality Lab?

Craig Morris: Yeah, so I took over at the end of 1989 from a wonderful guy by the name of Gordon Reuben Thaler, who was the — my predecessor.

Drew Lyon: The Wheat Quality Lab is really quite a nice resource here on the Pullman campus. Can you tell us a little bit about what the Wheat Quality Lab does?

Craig Morris: Sure. The USDA-ARS Western Wheat Quality Lab is one of four regional wheat quality labs maintained by the federal government and expressly purposed to work with wheat breeders to develop new varieties for growers. And then secondly, to conduct what we call mission-oriented research related to wheat, grains, problems facing U.S. agriculture.

Drew Lyon: So some of the tests you run and some of the samples come in to you, can you go through some of those things? Because I think you do a whole bunch of different things, and I’m not sure our listeners all understand what goes into determining whether a certain variety is good quality or poor quality.

Craig Morris: Sure, sure. Yeah, I’d be delighted to. And I’ll preface this by saying that the breeding process, the process of developing new wheat cultivars, I like to compare to say, you know, any sort of, professional sports. Let’s say it’s baseball. And say you have thousands and thousands of kids playing Little League ball. Very few are going to ever end up in the Majors. And it’s exactly the same with wheat breeding. The success rate from what we do in the Quality Lab — and this would be for any other breeders — is less — well, it’s around a .1%.

Drew Lyon: Wow.

Craig Morris: So on an annual basis we evaluate something on the order of 4,000 to 5,000 individual experimental wheat lines. And from that, you know, maybe we’re lucky if we get two, or three, or four new varieties. Now we focus specifically on public breeding programs. So my lab covers, of course, Washington State University, Oregon State University, a little bit with the University of Idaho, Utah State, etc. I often get the question, “Do you do anything with private breeding companies?” And we do on a very limited basis. The main way we get a look at private breeding lines, private breeding varieties would be through the WSU extension nurseries. Those samples get processed, just like we would, Dr. Arron Carter’s or Dr. Mike Pumphrey’s samples, a complete evaluation. I’ll come back to some of the specific tests that we do. Those data from the extension nurseries go directly into a Washington Grain Commission funded project that we call the Genotype and Environment Study. And that gets distributed as the Preferred Variety pamphlets. So how do we — how do we make those judgments for the Preferred Variety pamphlets? We do an exhaustive, extensive evaluation of grain, milling performance, dough properties, baking properties — and of course, it differs depending on whether we’re doing, say, hard wheats or soft wheats. Soft wheats are targeted towards things like cookies, cakes, some styles of noodles. The hard wheats, whether it’s hard white, hard red winter, DNS (dark northern spring), what have you, of course, is really focused towards bread and yeast leaven products that have typically stronger gluten, stronger dough properties.

Drew Lyon: You know, the breeders, as my perception is that, you know, their number one thing they’re going for is yield. And they’re really breeding for it. And sometimes something that yields well has good quality; sometimes it doesn’t. Can you give us an idea of how frequently, quality kills a variety, so that something the breeder might be excited about, but the quality just doesn’t — isn’t there? Is that a common thing, or not so common, or?

Craig Morris: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I would say that I have heard people tell me that breeding, whether it’s wheat breeding or other crops, is really an exercise in throwing things away. Because again, if you’re keeping less than 1% of everything that you’re starting out with, obviously, you need reasons to throw stuff away. So there’s a multitude of selection criteria, and you know, I’d defer to the breeders to give you the straight scoop on that, but clearly, things — yield is absolutely important and probably is number one, because a new variety that can’t out-yield what’s already out there, you know, why release it? Why burden the seed growers? Nobody’s going to grow it anyway unless there’s some particular advantage. But in addition to yield, obviously we like to have good disease resistance. It has to have the right plant height. It has to thresh well. It has to, you know, resist lodging. On, and on, and on. All the agronomic and traits that need to be there for the grower. In terms of end-use quality it’s a pretty rigorous bar to meet. And so I think that we’ve made considerable progress in the last, oh, probably 10 years for sure, maybe 20 years, in terms of developing a better predictive test that we can use early on in the breeding process. To give the listeners an idea, we would typically start seeing samples about the fourth generation after the initial process made. We would continue testing a given line for three or four years subsequent to that. Usually at that point, if it’s made — if it’s met all the criterion, is still retained in the program, it will move into the extension nursery. And then we would look at it three more years after that. At that point or anywhere along the line, it either gets rejected or it keeps moving forward. And eventually if it passes again, all the criteria, in our specific case, Washington State University would make a decision whether to release that to growers or not.

Drew Lyon: Okay.

Craig Morris: Yeah.

Drew Lyon: So the Agricultural Research Service is the official research arm of the USDA. So what research projects do you have going on currently?

Craig Morris: Yeah. Much of my research — and this is true over the almost 30 years that I’ve been doing this — I’ve been focused on kernel texture. And you might say, “Well, why is — why all that effort on kernel texture?” It’s really one of probably the single most important trait related to milling and end-use quality, flour quality. And so we were really the first to identify the underlying genes that make soft wheat soft and hard wheat hard. And so we really have established ourselves with an international reputation for working in that area. We continue on today. We have extended that research into developing what we call soft-kernel durum wheat. We also have a project right now on what we also call super-soft wheat. This is where the kernels — and we still don’t fully understand it — are much, much softer than even soft white. We would like to understand genetically, why that is. We would like to understand, does that particular trait confer advantages, economic potential for millers, bakers, and similarly, growers? You know, is it good for something that we really don’t do well at now, or could do better at, is a better way to say that. We’re very excited about the soft durum. That’s been decades in the works. It’s just standard commercial production here in the last, oh, about three years. Still trying to ramp up production, but it’s a completely new type of wheat, and really, offers some exciting possibilities to food processors.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Why don’t you tell us a little more about this soft durum? My understanding, which granted, isn’t real thorough, is that durum is a very hard type of wheat, and therefore, its uses could — are rather limited, in spaghettis and things like that. But this new soft durum, it allows you to do other things besides spaghetti?

Craig Morris: Yeah, yeah. And everything you said is exactly correct. Durum wheat is actually a different species than the wheat we grow in Washington state. And it’s much, much older. Durum wheat evolved or came into existence about a half-a-million years ago, whereas all the bread wheats, whether it’s soft white or hard red, whatever, these wheats really only evolved about 9 to 10,000 years ago. The reason I bring this up, and the reason it’s important is because as plants exist in environments they tend to accumulate genes to resist pests, whether its stripe rust or insects or what have you. And so the fact that durum wheat has been around for so much longer, it’s a really rich genetic resource. It’s also developed great resistance to drought and heat. And so with all these things going for it, one can ask, “Well, why don’t we grow more of it?” Globally, the split is about 90% bread wheat, 10% durum wheat. Well, as you indicated a moment ago, the primary limitation is really our culinary uses of durum wheat. It actually, from just a plant standpoint, offers great potential for farmers. You also were correct in stating that durum wheat has very, very hard kernels. That influences the milling. We actually don’t mill durum into flour. We actually mill it into a coarse, gritty thing that we call semolina. Its primary uses, at least in the United States, is indeed in pasta: spaghetti, penne, various types of pasta products. And so if we could expand those culinary uses, potentially then we could — there would be more consumer demand. Farmers could grow more of it, take advantage of its inherent attributes. And so the primary thing, as I mentioned earlier about working on kernel texture, that really, very hard kernel texture limited our ability to use it. And so what our research accomplished was to, through non-GMO means, to move the genes from soft white into durum. And voila, soft kernel durum wheat. And it’s really completely reinvented and transformed durum as a potential wheat crop.

Drew Lyon: So can you tell us a little bit about what some of the potential uses are, or you know, what people are using it, currently, or thinking about using it? Where are you wanting to take this?

Craig Morris: Sure, yeah. The — probably one of the more important things is, it still makes excellent pasta. And the whole notion has been turned on its head, that you can only make high-quality pasta out of semolina. And that’s clearly proven to not be the case. The flour that we make out of soft kernel durum has the particle size distribution of fleck soft white. And really, if you think about it, soft kernel durum actually is a soft white. It’s just the different species than the soft white we grow here in Washington state. And so there are many — there’s a number of other, sort of, technical aspects of a soft durum flour that are more desirable, and in a sense, better than semolina. Things like the amount of damage to the starch granules, the water absorption capability. So those are all improvements over hard kernel durum or semolina, and that’s why it makes excellent, even better pasta. The second part of the answer, though, is that now that we have a flour, as opposed to semolina, we can actually start thinking about making hearth breads. They actually make great cookies. In our lab, the cookie test is one of the main soft wheat quality tests, and soft durums make outstanding cookies. They tend to — the current lines tend to have a little bit weaker gluten, so they’re not best for pan bread. But for things like baguettes, hearth breads that are cooked without a pan, they really make outstanding products. And not surprisingly, they’re yellow like spaghetti, and they have a tremendously great aroma, flavor, appearance. And so that’s kind of where some of the things are headed. There are some local products here on the Palouse, so if any of the listeners are ever in Pullman or in Moscow, Idaho, there’s some things that you can get here locally.

Drew Lyon: Like?

Craig Morris: [ laughter ] One of my favorites is Porch Light Pizza, here in beautiful downtown Pullman Washington. The crust is made with 100% soft kernel durum flour. Locally grown down in Lewiston, locally stone milled at Harvest Ridge, and yeah. So that’s a really neat story, I think, in terms of local food, diversifying agriculture, really kind of connecting, what we say, fork to table sort of thing, yeah.

Drew Lyon: That’s a very interesting story, and look forward to seeing more of this around. My guess is, with all these specialty bakeries and stuff, we might just start seeing some of them adopting it. So I’ll keep my eyes open for that. So do you do work with crops other than wheat?

Craig Morris: Yeah, we have. We’ve worked with Dr. Kevin Murphy on quinoa. We shared a Ph.D. student. She did an outstanding job in characterizing a lot of the genetic variation for quinoa seed properties and processing properties. So we’ve also worked some on hulless barley. We currently are working with US Dry Pea and Lentil Council on a dry, yellow, split pea project. So really, anything related to grains — doesn’t have to be wheat — that’s kind of what we do.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So if our listeners want to learn more about the Western Wheat Quality Lab, is there someplace they can go to get that information?

Craig Morris: Yeah, we’ve got a — we’ve got a website. I would encourage anybody, drop me an email; give me a call on the phone. Any questions about wheat, certainly any questions about grains, I’ll be happy to try to help out. We have been participating in your Wheat Academy for the last two or three years. I think that’s a great opportunity for people to learn more about — to come to campus and learn more about what’s going on. We also do a one-day cereal school, if you’d be interested in — that’s a very hands-on, sort of, all day thing. If you’d like to — if you’re interested in that, get a hold of the Washington or Idaho Wheat Commission. They can put you in touch with us there, so —

Drew Lyon: Okay, we’ll try to get that web address, and phone number, and contact information in our show notes. Very interesting work being done at the Western Wheat Quality Lab, and some of your own research is got some real application. We look forward to learning more in the future. Thanks for joining us today, Craig.

Craig Morris: You bet. Thank you, Drew.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: Thanks for joining us and listening to the WSU Wheat Beat Podcast. If you like what you hear, you can subscribe on iTunes or your favorite podcasting app so you never miss an episode. And leave us a review while you’re there. If you have questions for us that you’d like to hear addressed on future episodes, please email me at drew.lyon@wsu.edu. You can find us online at smallgrains.wsu.edu. You can also reach out on Facebook and Twitter @WSUSmallGrains. The WSU Wheat Beat Podcast is a production of CAHNRS communications in the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. I’m Drew Lyon. We’ll see you next week.

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